Jun 6, 2019

X-Men: Dark Phoenix [12A] [2D]

Dir: Simon Kinberg
There is no denying that the original X-Men film helped kickstart a revolution in mainstream cinema. Yes, Blade had helped rehabilitate the superhero movie somewhat, but for the mass audience it was the success of X-Men that repopularised the genre and its sequels and spin offs that acted as some level of proof of concept for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is rather ironic that a series about mutants - frequently spoken of as the next stage in human evolution - has, in the space of 19 years, gone from looking groundbreaking to being desperately outpaced by the things that evolved from it.

I’ve always felt that the third of the initial trilogy, The Last Stand, got something of a raw deal from critics and audiences. It’s not so much a truly bad film as it is one that ended up chaotic. It has too many ideas - many of them good - and is unable to pay most of them off in a satisfactory way, and the behind the scenes ructions (including a late director change) can’t have helped. For many of the fans of the comics though, the film’s greatest sin was squandering the legendary Dark Phoenix storyline, which stretched through multiple years in the comics. It’s no surprise that with the timeline reboot provided by Days of Future Past, there would be another attempt to adapt this storyline. What is perhaps surprising is just how much worse than the last attempt Dark Phoenix turns out to be.

This continuity of X-Men films, begun with 2010’s First Class,  is now four films old and fatigue had seemed to set in with the last entry, 2016’s Apocalypse. In that film Jennifer Lawrence, as Mystique, seemed particularly checked out, almost certainly aware that her career had long since passed the point at which she needed these films. For Dark Phoenix, the virus has spread, infecting not just the veteran cast but most of the new faces added for Apocalypse. This isn’t the worst film you’ll see this year (it’s not the worst film you can see this weekend), but it is the one with the strongest and most pervasive whiff of contractual obligation. None of the main cast seems invested in the story they are telling here, which leads to the whole thing feeling dry and bloodless, like watching the actors walk through blocking, speaking their lines out loud but seldom putting emotion or intention behind them.

This is, unfortunately, notably true of Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, on whom the entire plot turns. Let’s forget that we clearly saw her Phoenix persona manifest at the end of Apocalypse (Simon Kinberg, who wrote both films and makes his directorial debut with this one, certainly has), here the power that she incubates after it crashes through her during a space rescue mission appears to be something that feeds on her pain. This is something we can infer from the story, but less often from Turner’s frequently blank-faced work. The relationship between her and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), barely developed in the previous film, isn’t remotely convincing, and that too should be an emotional fulcrum for the film, especially in its third act. Scenes between Turner and Jessica Chastain should be compelling, with Chastain at first seeming to be a mentor figure but lusting after the power that Jean contains, unfortunately these moments too are painfully dull. There is likely a lot of material with Chastain on the cutting room floor, all that remains is the barest hint of a motive and an origin for her character, but she is hopelessly under served by what remains of her story arc, and looks like she’s well aware of the fact.

Aside from the cast appearing bored and the obvious swathes of cuts to get this down to 114 minutes (Apocalypse and Days of Future Past both came in around 140), there are sticking point in the form of the chasmic logic gaps in the timeline of these films. First Class was set in 1962 and with each film set roughly a decade later we have now ended up in 1992. Obviously some mutants age more slowly thanks to their powers (this was something specified about Mystique), but most don’t and we’ve previously seen that Professor X and Magneto (again played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) clearly don’t. They should both be around 60 at the time of this film and there is no effort made to give them or any of the other characters any sort of ageing make up. Obviously heavy prosthetics aren’t much fun to wear and impact on your shooting schedule, but a little nod in the direction of making them look, at the very least, older than they did thirty years ago in movie time, would be both welcome and much less distracting.

Kinberg’s work feels as nonchalant as that of most of his cast. The writing is functional at best. He struggles to combine the various storylines interestingly and hardly manages to find any personality in the characters, especially the newer ones. As a director, he makes a resolutely middle of the road debut. This is too expensive a film with too big and professional a crew to look anything other than proficient, but Kinberg stamps no directorial authority on it, finds no interesting or provocative images, there’s nothing individual in his approach to either character or action. 

There are a few minor plus sides here. Michael Fassbender, even when disinterested, is too good an actor not to have a few compelling moments. Any emotional weight in the film comes from him in relation to the fate of a another character and the lengths it drives him to. The only person who seems to actually be enjoying himself is Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose performance as Nightcrawler is a genuine and much needed bright spot and whose powers, while not used as well as in X2’s opening sequence, lead to easily the film’s best action. While it’s neutered by the utter lack of stakes, there is at least some visceral enjoyment to be had from the climactic action set piece on a train, finally unleashing all the characters’ powers in an extended action sequence. 

That, sadly, is about all the good news. It’s not just that X-Men: Dark Phoenix is bad - though it is. The real disappointment is that after such a promising start for this cast and this section of the X-Men movie universe, this is the end. 19 years, a dozen films and rather than the truly earned climax that the MCU’s first decade went out on, this series ends with a pitiful whimper.

No comments:

Post a Comment